Fortress Madonna … Christmas in Stalingrad 1942

A City in Ruins

Nestled in a makeshift hospital amidst the brutally bombed & burned Soviet city of Stalingrad [present-day Volgograd], a young German lieutenant attempted miracles within a hellish inferno. His comrades-in-arms were freezing, starving, and – in many cases – wounded. As a physician and pastor, his task was to save as many lives as he possibly could. Kurt Reuber was this invaluable man’s name. He had marched into this great city on the Volga River along with the rest of the German Sixth Army the previous August. It had been a contentious hellhole ever since, as the Russian armies surrounding it relentlessly made death-filled attempts to dislodge the invaders. It wouldn’t be until February 1943 that they would be successful.

A blanket was draped across the little sanctuary that was Reuber’s hospital providing him with his own room of sorts. It was December and the Russian winter was merciless. Escaping death was no easy task in this war-torn environment, so saving his men was not going to be likely. There was no way out, and no way in for any of the relief attempts. It was a forlorn and dreary Christmas that lay on the horizon. Reuber, a wearer of many hats, turned to his art to while away the long, dark hours.

On the back of a map, and with a shard of charcoal, he sketched in the rat and lice-infested enclave. If nothing else, he would try to make for a bit of joy to share with his mates in an otherwise helpless and hopeless circumstance.

It was with adoration and somewhat bewilderment that met with its unveiling. Beauty in such a bestial situation, yet, there it was – Mother Mary cuddling her baby son, Jesus. And there they were in the middle of an eternal punishment where death seemed the only option.

I wondered for a long while what I should paint, and in the end I decided on a Madonna, or mother and child. I have turned my hole in the frozen mud into a studio. The space is too small for me to be able to see the picture properly, so I climb on to a stool and look down at it from above, to get the perspective right. Everything is repeatedly knocked over, and my pencils vanish into the mud. There is nothing to lean my big picture of the Madonna against, except a sloping, home-made table past which I can just manage to squeeze. There are no proper materials and I have used a Russian map for paper. But I wish I could tell you how absorbed I have been painting my Madonna, and how much it means to me.

LT. Kurt Reuber
Artist’s self-portrait done in Stalingrad

When according to ancient custom I opened the Christmas door, the slatted door of our bunker, and the comrades went in, they stood as if entranced, devout and too moved to speak in front of the picture on the clay wall. …The entire celebration took place under the influence of the picture, and they thoughtfully read the words: light, life, love. …Whether commander or simple soldier, the Madonna was always an object of outward and inward contemplation.

LT. Kurt Reuber

The place became known among the surviving soldiers as “Fortress Madonna” and the artwork “The Stalingrad Madonna.” The work of art was flown out of the beleaguered city by the Luftwaffe. The original piece now resides in the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin. A copy is on display in Volgograd, proving that humanity can persevere against all evil. Kurt Reuber died in a Russian POW camp on January 20, 1944. Over a million people died during the Battle for Stalingrad. Of the 91,000 German soldiers taken prisoner by the Russians only 5,000 ever returned to their homeland.

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